By Jennifer D. Pegg
The world of Ripperology is surrounded by suspects, who appear to walk out of the shadows and into the scrutiny of the eyes of Ripperologists, with alarming frequency. Yet some suspects attract more attention than others. Furthermore, a select group appear to court controversy, usually due to the shoddy nature of their candidature. These are suspects like Gull, Maybrick and, more recently, Sickert, who have attracted a high degree of controversy and promoted research and discussion (sometimes among select groups of Ripperologists) in order to dismiss them from the suspect list. Of these controversial suspects, one stands out, and he is Robert D’Onston Stephenson. This is because he has created animosity amongst Ripperologists without ever having truly captured the popular imagination of the wider public as a genuine Ripper suspect. He has been the subject of Ripper theories by two published authors Melvin Harris and Ivor Edwards.
In Jack the Ripper the Bloody Truth Harris stated that he felt ‘in truth only one man can be seriously considered as Jack the Ripper. That man is Doctor Roslyn D'Onston’. Harris’s view of D'Onston’s candidacy as the best Ripper remained unchanged from this point throughout his life and was researched further for his two subsequent books. In The Ripper File Harris stated that he aimed to ‘assemble my new findings and draw a fresh portrait of the man [D’Onston] himself’. Harris’s subsequent book True Face of Jack the Ripper was his main suspect book and served as a portrait of the man who he believed was the killer; in it Harris outlined his theory in its most complete form.
Harris made his feelings on D’Onston’s guilt clear in his research. In Ripper File he stated that D’Onston
‘alone, of all the suspects, had the right profile of the opportunities, the motives, and the ideal cover. His background, his personality, his skills, his frame of mind, all [point to] him for the fateful role.’
He further added
‘I once felt that we would never identify the killer yet finally I came to name D’onston Stephenson as the only man who can be taken seriously as the Ripper. When I first reached this conclusion I knew that my research was far from complete.’
But what made Harris feel so certain that D’Onston was not only a genuine and good suspect but the actual killer?
Harris researched the life of his suspect for many years and by the time of the publication of the True Face of Jack the Ripper in 1994 he had amassed a large amount of information about his life. Through the three books we learn a lot about the life of the suspect. Harris tells us that ‘Roslyn D’Onston was born plain Robert D’Onston Stephenson on the 20th April 1841 in Charles Street Sculcoates near Hull Yorkshire’. This area was made up of middle class town houses. Harris found that in his teens D’Onston
‘took rooms in Munich and studied chemistry under the renowned Dr James Allen […] other medical studies were pursued in Paris and there he met the son of Lord Lytton [...]for D'Onston was in awe the light revealed by Lytoon's book Zanovia a novel based on the power of magic’.
On his return to Hull D'Onston ran up gambling debts and this allowed his father to enforce his own will on his son. D’Onston’s father refused to pay the debts unless D’Onston broke contact with a prostitute and married an heiress D’Onston gave in and broke contact. Harris stated that he felt in D’Onston ‘we find someone whose problems were all of his own making’. From Harris we learn that D’Onston was a customs officer whilst in Hull. At one point in his career ‘D’Onston was shot in the right thigh by Thomas Piles, a fisherman […] of Hull […] D’Onston had to live immobile for some three weeks before he could return to his home.’ D’Onston’s career in customs ended in disaster when ‘in March 1868 he was charged with being absent from duty and called before the disciplinary board The vital turning point of D’Onstons life was when he left his native Hull for London and in doing so changed his name from plain Robert Stephenson ‘to Roslyn D’Onston […] and covered up all traces of his past life as a servant of the crown.’ D’Onston married ‘Anne Deary [...] on 14th February 1876 in the north London church of St. James in Holloway.’ The marriage was not one which lasted, they appear to have become estranged by the time of the murders, Harris even goes as far as to suggest that D’Onston did away with his wife and she was the Rainham Torso. Ivor Edwards also suggested that Anne Stephenson was killed. Recently, Howard and Nina Brown claimed to have unearthed her actual death certificate which shows she died in an accident many years later, whether this is the correct woman, remains unclear . However, the idea that she was the Rainham torso remains unproven and highly speculative. Harris found that D’Onston had said ‘he had panned for gold in the United States, witnessed devil worship in the Cameroon and hunted for the authentic rope trick in India. For a while he even courted danger as a surgeon–major with Garibaldi’s army’. Harris stated he felt ‘Donston’s newspaper writings are packed with deception; biographically, they are of limited use and his tales of magic in Europe, Asia and Africa are just too exaggerated to be true.’ How much of this was embellishment on D’Onston’s part can be left to the reader to decide.
What was D’Onston doing at the crucial period of the murders? Harris stated that ‘in 1888 he [D’Onston] was living in Whitechapel.’ He was an in patient at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. Harris had researched the stay and had found that ‘on 26th July he booked into a private bed as a neurasthenic and began his rest cure’. Harris tells us that ‘D'Onstons stay at the hospital ended Friday 7 December 1888’. Harris (and later Edwards) stated their belief that this condition was something that (like ‘back pain’ might be viewed today) could be both genuine and easily faked. Whether or not this was possible or what happened in this case remains unproven. Harris found that D’Onston had associated himself with the murder investigation on an amateur level, leading to him being briefly suspected at the time of the murders. D’Onston wrote to both the press and police from his hospital bed ‘in November 1888, D’Onston from his hospital bed had pestered W. T Stead for an assignment with financial backing, to hunt the Ripper.’ He talked to George Marsh a would be amateur detective about the murders and he suggested to him that Dr Morgan Davies (a doctor at the London Hospital he was an in patient at) was the Ripper, he spoke ‘so realistically about the killings he guessed Marsh would draw his own very different conclusions [i.e. would suspect D’Onston]’ and ‘he [Marsh] went to Scotland yard and fingered Roslyn D’Onston as Jack the Ripper’. Then ‘D’Onston went in person to the Yard and wrote out a long statement, repeating and amplifying his charges against Davies.’ He confided his suspicions and made his statement to Inspector Roots who he’d known on and off for 20 years. Roots had good reason to doubt the story but his report shows he was still impressed by D’Onston. In The Bloody Truth Harris points out ‘these important papers were not unearthed until 1975’. They have subsequently been lost but parts are quoted in Evans and Skinner’s Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook.
D’Onston also wrote articles in the popular press about his views on the Ripper. A December 1888 article for the Pall Mall Gazette reveals D’Onston’s view that there was a satanic plan behind the killings whereby each corpse was supposed to lie along the lines of a cross – the supreme Christian symbol was therefore profaned as the black arts demanded. Harris stated that ‘his confessional article was carefully rigged to look like the conclusions of an outside observer. It satisfied the need to boast and taunt’. Harris also asserted that D’Onston had said ‘there would be no more Ripper murders and there were none. Only the killer himself could speak with such authority.’
Some aspersions against D’Onston that are based around his later life with lover Mabel Collins and his alleged actions at this time, rely no the manuscript of the unpublished work by Bernard O’Donnell on the suspect. Of O’Donnell, Harris says the suspicion against D’Onston was ‘put in his mind by Hayter Preston […] a friend of poet Victor Neuberg, and Neuberg had once been one of Alistair Crowley’s dupes.’ O’Donnell had complied the research by using the memoirs of Cremers which she ‘in 1930 […] began to unburden herself for the first time. She wrote small pieces for him over four years until at last O’Donnell was able to view her complete memoirs for the years 1888 to 1891.’ In The Bloody Truth Harris stated that ‘Cremers [an associate of D’Onston and his lover] gave her account in the late 1920s to Bernard O’Donnell the only investigator to really sense that D’Onston had to be taken seriously.’ The story went that Cremers Collins and D’Onston ‘took premises in Baker Street and set up the Pompadour Cosmetics Company.’ During their time with D’Onston ‘both [Collins and Cremers] became convinced D’Onston was capable of murder.’
Readers may have noted that for Melvin Harris to be correct in his suspicions against D’Onston, the following things have to be true: -
1) D’Onston faked his illness and was not ill (if he was actually ill and requiring bed rest then this is obviously a pretty good excuse).
2) D’Onston had to be able to get out of the hospital and back into it covered in blood without raising suspicion or being noticed four separate times.
Ivor Edwards also published his own book on the theory that D’Onston was Jack the Ripper and that in his opinion the reason he killed was for the sake of elaborate black magic rituals. Edwards must be praised for his detailed analysis of the murder sites and the distances between them, having gone to the East End and paced these out. This detailed analysis led to the conclusion that the killings were plotted to form a ritual symbol and this could be seen if the distances were measured and the murder sites joined correctly on a map. Edwards outlined how the cross was profaned by the killer (this idea was previously visited by Harris). However, Edwards goes further than Harris by suggesting that the killer used a map to plot the murder locations prior to killings. This was so that these locations would form points that could be joined together in order to map out a variety of occult symbols. Furthermore, Edwards felt that someone in hospital would not be considered a suspect and he also found that Jack killed at weekends when there were staff reductions at the hospital, thus making it easier for D’Onston to have left the grounds.
Edwards said ‘I did not find one piece of research or evidence of one valid point that could be raised to cast serious doubt over his guilt’. This might, however, be considered a leap of faith on his part, since Edwards’s version of the theory relies on some rather elaborate geometry and plotting and on the Ripper pre-planning the locations of the murders (although not always managing to kill on exactly these points of the map!) To be understood properly as a theory Edwards book needs reading so that the reader can assess his theory for themselves first hand as it is far too complex to paraphrase concisely and accurately here.
In sum, the suspect Robert ‘Roslyn’ D’Onston Stephenson is an interesting one. He associated himself with the murders by being an early Ripperologist and attempting to put forward theories as to why the Ripper killed and who he was. This was sufficient for him to draw attention to himself at the time in both the eyes of George Marsh and W.T. Stead; in the way his knowledge of the murders was perceived to be too accurate by both men. However, against the idea of his candidature, are, most importantly, that the police appear to have dismissed the idea at the time (even though Roots apparently knew D’Onston). Also, against the idea are some of the theories behind how he would have managed to do it (faked illness) and why (black magic). However, readers must be reminded that theories in themselves can be wrong whilst a suspect can be perfectly legitimate. It is for readers to investigate further and decide where they nail their colours and why.
Edwards, I (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals, Blake, London.
Evans, S. P. and Skinner, K. (2001) The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, Constable and Robinson, London.
Harris, M. (1987) Jack the Ripper The Bloody Truth, Columbus, London.
Harris, M. (1989) The Ripper File, W.H. Allen, London.
Harris, M. (1994) The True Face of Jack the Ripper, Michael O’ Mara, London.